A Book That Changed My Life

The first post of the new year – and the next in the life-changing literature series – comes from Carol Anne Shaw, a writer and illustrator living in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. Echoing some of the themes discussed in other posts in this series, Carol Anne shows how a good book can tangle itself up with our lives, eventually serving as a touchstone and a constant source of inspiration. After reading the piece, you may find yourself itching to go out and buy a much-loved book of your own adolescence, a copy to keep within easy reach and use as a sort of talisman – an object to help carry you both backward and forward in time, both into pleasant memories and outward and onward, toward whatever may lie ahead.

Read Carol Anne’s post, and then make sure to learn more about her and her work below.

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I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.  When I was a scrawny little kid, I wrote on the old electric typewriter that lived in our den, and would often forego play dates and lunch when I was banging away on the keyboard. They were bad stories – almost always about horses and young girls who were misfits. The premise was good, but the writing, not so much. All those exclamation marks!

Like most writers, I was also a voracious reader, devouring books about animals (mainly horses) and plucky kids who felt more at home with the world of wildlife than with the social complexities of school, etc.

There was one novel, however, that resonated with me when I was a kid. (It still does).  It was the book, Bambi – a big, fat novel (NOT the Walt Disney sanitized version) that was first published in 1923 by Austrian writer, Felix Salten. A pretty hefty tome for a kid, it is a gentle story about the wilderness and the fragile vulnerability of the forest. It was a book before its time – one that clearly exploited man’s ignorance and egocentric value system, while celebrating the magic that is the natural world. Every time I read that book, it knifed me in the gut. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me want to do something honourable with my life. And the writing was (is) gorgeous!


But my fascination with deer doesn’t end with that classic story. I was kind of an awkward kid: braces, horrific acne, a loner, too sensitive for my own good, and shy to boot. My mother, despite the stress of dealing with her crumbling marriage to my father, used to take me up into the north shore mountains on numerous epic drives, in search of the elusive deer. We’d head out at twilight in her tiny green Austin Mini Minor, with a dinner of cold cheese sandwiches and the Kodak Instamatic, returning home to our tiny one-bedroom apartment long after sundown.  Sometimes we’d see some but most often we wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter. I loved those drives – away from the mean kids at school, away from the depressing environment at home. The road ahead was full of promise and adventure! Those were the times when I felt completely “me.”

Just after my first book, Hannah and the Spindle Whorl, was released, I decided I would try to hunt down a volume of Felix Salten’s Bambi, for nostalgic purposes. I had long since lost my original copy of the book, and I asked after it here and there, but with no luck. When you mention “Bambi,” most people think of Walt’s sweet, big-eyed anthropomorphized critter, skating innocently around a frozen forest pond with a little skunk named “Flower.” A lot of people hadn’t even heard of the original book. I was in no hurry though. I figured it would show up eventually.

A little bit later, while I was browsing in one of my favourite Victoria used bookstores (Russell Books), I asked a clerk about it. She hadn’t heard of it either, but wrote it down and promised to call me should she dig up any information about it. As I thanked her for her time and prepared to walk away, she suddenly asked another employee approaching if he had heard of the book. He went a bit pale and said, “You mean this one?”  He was holding up the book in his right hand. He explained that he had just picked it up out of a box in the back room and didn’t really know why he was taking it out into the store! Not only was it the right book, it was the same edition I’d had as a kid, with the same image on the dust jacket. Ten bucks later, it was mine.

I’m not exactly sure that this book changed my life, but it definitely made me want to become a writer. I wanted to be able to create stories that would stir other’s emotions the same way this book had stirred mine. I wanted to write sentences that flowed. I wanted to create characters that were authentic and inspiring.

So, thank you Felix Salten, for your Bambi, your quiet, lovely little book. It sits on my writing desk, and I refer to it often. A talisman? Perhaps. An inspiration? Most definitely.

. . .
carol anneCarol Anne Shaw is a writer and illustrator/painter living in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. She prefers gumboots to high heels, and feels very lucky to have lived on her two-acre paradise for the past twenty years. She has two grown sons in their 20s, a very supportive husband (http://richardjshaw.weebly.com/) and her own personal muse – a high maintenance beagle by the name of “Eddie.” She tried her hand at many different jobs in her younger days – from driving a front-end loader, to bartending, to working on a dude ranch, to operating a travelling bookmobile. Eventually she found herself at art school, and for thirteen years worked in the art department of a local private boarding school. Currently, she writes/paints full time from home, and is grateful each and every day for having the chance to live her dream. Hannah and the Spindle Whorl, a historical fiction tale targeted at middle-grade readers, was her debut novel. The sequel, Hannah by the Salish Sea, was published in February of 2013, and Hannah and the Wild Woods, the last novel in the trilogy, is forthcoming from Ronsdale Press.

Click the links to visit Carol Anne on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website.

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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.

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